Between the world wars: 1920s and 1930s

Part V of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

As the western world was rebuilding itself in the wake of World War I, races continued to be seen as a ‘natural’ way of categorizing humans. During this time, Caucasian became more widely used to describe an increasingly broad range of white-skinned people. This was the result of the legitimacy of science being used to consolidate white as a unifying category (Jacobson, 1998). In the U.S., the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act significantly decreased non-British European immigration. This, combined with increased internal migration of southern African-Americans, lead to the consolidation of the various white European ethnicities into the broader category of Caucasian, which was defined in opposition to blacks (Jacobson, 1998). Barrett echoes this analysis. He says that southern and eastern European “ethnic communities had by then come to identify themselves as white in relation to the burgeoning black urban population” (Barrett, 2001, p. 35).

Brodkin-Sacks (1992/2003) uses the US census to illustrate the growing inclusivity of the word white. The census of 1930 made a distinction between Eastern/Southern and Northern “Euroimmigrants” (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 118). However, “the 1940 census no longer distinguished native whites of native parentage from those, like my parents, of immigrant parentage, so that Euroimmigrants and their children were more securely white by submersion in an expanded notion of whiteness (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 122). Due to these converging dynamics, white was becoming a unifying category for previously diverse groups of immigrants.

In Canada, there was a significant decrease in the number of immigrants generally, and especially from non-British and non-American sources. With the increasing economic depression, a 1931 government order closed the door almost entirely to immigration, and it was not opened again until after the end of World War II (Green & Green, 1999). Canadian immigration policy was entirely focused on the assimilation of immigrants into English-Canadian or French-Canadian culture. In practice, this meant that “immigrants who were culturally or racially inferior (or at least different) and incapable of being assimilated should be excluded” (Palmer, 1976, p. 465). The Canadian government was committed to creating a primarily white population, and largely achieved this through exclusionary immigration policies and assimilation practices for recently arrived immigrants.

The 1930s also saw the beginning of the trend within the scientific community to discredit scientific theories about race. This was in part because of the lack of evidence for these theories, but also because of the growing awareness of Nazi race theories. In 1939 some geneticists formulated the “geneticist’s manifesto” which rejected Nazi-like race theories (Jacobson, 1998; Province, 1973). These were the germinating seeds in this time period that enabled the explosion of social constructionist theories of the last half of the twentieth century. Boas, for example, wrote in 1937 that the “mind, body, custom, and social behavior are all subject to the ‘plastic influence of environment’” (as cited in Jacobson, 1998, p. 101).

Despite the world wide economic depression of the 1930s, this time period was also a time of major accumulation of wealth by whites in the US, and corresponding disaccumulation of wealth by blacks. As an example of economic accumulation and disaccumulation, some authors note the large discrepancy between the net worth of whites and African Americans with equivalent annual incomes. This discrepancy has been explained to a large degree by differences in the value and equity of the homes owned by whites and blacks (Brown et al., 2003, p. 23-24). Some of this discrepancy can be traced back to the New Deal programs created during the Depression in the 1930s. These program were set up ostensibly to benefit all citizens during a time of national crisis. However, in part because of the tensions in the US Congress at that time and pressure from southern US representatives, government social programs were set up in ways that covertly and effectively benefited white people significantly more than black people. This is clear in the Social Security program that was implemented: it excluded those who were employed as maids or farmworkers from coverage. This decision and the effects of this policy were not racially neutral, as about 75% of the total black labour force in the US were employed as either maids or farmworkers, and therefore excluded from the Social Security program (Brown et al., 2003, p. 28).

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